Previous eruptions in recent times may be dwarfed by the expected next eruption of Mr. Nyiragongo, which towers over the Eastern Congolese city of Goma. 9 years ago, in January 2002, when the region’s most active volcano erupted, the reportedly rather ‘liquid’ lava swiftly covered a sizeable part of the city and even brought air transport to a complete standstill, when a portion of the runway was covered by lava, which when finally cooling down was measured to be 6 and more feet thick and as wide as a kilometre, leaving total destruction in its wake and making over 120.000 residents homeless. The eruption then reached as far as Lake Kivu and only a major effort supported by the UN and international partners made the airport somehow usable again, albeit with a still shortened runway which makes the use of larger aircraft impossible and impacts on the operations of the airport even with smaller jets. Accidents have in fact been recorded at Goma attributed at the shortened runway making every landing and takeoff an adventure of sorts. An earlier major eruption in 1977 too caused similar havoc but population numbers were considerably less back then and the main path of the lava was not directed frontally against Goma. There are reportedly only two ‘main exit routes’ for the lava, as researchers have established and therefore the chance of Goma being hit again during the next eruption is 50/50.
Entrepreneurs have since the 2002 eruption, and after the volcano had quieted down again, even introduced guided tours to the volcano’s peak, allowing visitors to have a look into the lava lake, ignoring warnings from volcanologists to stay well clear of the crater. While in the past, ahead of major eruptions, earthquakes and seismic events indicated increased activity of the volcano, the absence of monitoring equipment is hampering the ability of researchers to adequately monitor the mountain and predict imminent eruptions but neither the ‘volcano operators’ nor the population at large seems overly concerned at this stage, inspite of recent pictures being taken from aircraft overflying the crater, showing it once again filling up with enormous quantities of lava. A few months ago it was reported here that the lava’s reflections on low clouds could be seen all the way into Uganda, again underscoring that there is indeed now a growing possibility of another upcoming eruption, many of which in the recorded history of the volcano have come at 10 year intervals.
The African Rift Valley, which extends from the Red Sea across much of Africa to Malawi, has always been an active seismological zone – as another active volcano, Mt. Ol Donyo Lengai in Tanzania demonstrates – but of late have disquieting reports emerged that the underwater ‘rip’ in the Red Sea seems to be widening, as minor eruptions have been reported from the border area between Ethiopia and Djibouti. It is there that the ground has lowered too and subsequently seismic monitoring has been substantially increased to provide early alerts of imminent developments. In the Eastern African part of the Rift Valley, and especially for Mt. Nyiragongo, this does not seem to be the case at present however, leaving the populations near such volcanos at greater risk, and with no meaningful evacuation plans in place, leave alone the assets in place and the resources available, the Goma volcano can be considered a disaster in waiting. Should in fact the airport during a future eruption be closed again, feasible evacuations and the arrival of supplies and equipment will then only be able to reach Goma by road from Rwanda or else across the lake, where however shipping capacity too is minimal.